89 of 94 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2009
New Orleans is a city full of contradictions, a place out of context with the rest of America. It defies understanding, explanation, and most especially, classification. It's a quality the residents hold onto, this testament of uniqueness, even as the city has teetered time and again on the brink of destruction.
I've lived near New Orleans for most of my life. I'm a frequent visitor there, and, like everyone else who comes, I've fallen in love with its decadent grandness, its welcoming, leisurely way of life. All manner of humanity calls New Orleans home, and the city embraces them all. It's a unique place, out of step with the rest of America, and that is exactly why it is so important to save. This has never been truer than now, as the great lady teeters on her knees, still struggling, three years later, to rise from the devastation of Katrina.
Dan Baum, on assignment from The New Yorker after the storm, quickly learned all of these things. Along with his wife Margaret, he eventually moved to New Orleans in order to write a book, one which, using the timeframe between Betsy in 1965 and Katrina in 2005, captures perfectly what it means to love this city.
Baum chose nine people he got to know after the storm, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, writing the story of the city through their eyes. They are from vastly different ends of the socio-political spectrum, ranging from the widow of a revered Mardi Gras Indian chief to the long-time coroner of Orleans parish, from a transsexual bar owner to a former king of Rex and pillar of the Uptown community. Their stories are unique, yet a common thread runs through them all - the deep, abiding love of this place, of the home New Orleans offers to each.
The author captures that love without being preachy or overly sentimental. New Orleans is far from a fairy-tale land of mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance. Poverty, desperation, and crime are huge, unending problems, and Baum acknowledges this by telling stories that are candid, real, and fraught with generations of loss and disappointment. They are also, however, stories of hope, of people who have risen, time and again, despite adversity after adversity.
Many people in the rest of the United States have questioned why we should rebuild such a place, crippled as it is by poverty and corruption. It takes spending time in New Orleans to learn its value, I suppose, to experience the unique magic that makes this city special. If you can't visit, however, read this book. Dan Baum has clearly seen and understands. Five Stars.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
A doctor turned coroner, a band and music teacher, a transit system worker, an ambitious woman struggling to achieve a college education, a transexual bar owner and former college football player, a wealthy accountant... These are among the characters whose very disparate lives are woven together in this book that is about all of them and none of them; rather, it is about the city that they share, New Orleans.
"New Orleanians really want nothing more than for everything to stay the same," Dan Baum writes in his introduction to this compelling oral history of the city's misadventures over the last forty-plus years. As well all know, far from staying the same, everything in New Orleans underwent a seismic change in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina blew in from the Gulf of Mexico and along with the floods that followed, transformed the city's geography in every conceivable way. Its citizens were scattered all over the country, the lower Ninth Ward -- home to some of those whom Baum profiles in his book -- was destroyed.
While Katrina's devastation is the raison d'etre for Baum's book, the events of those horrible days in August and September, 2005 are simply the climax of the lives of the New Orleanians he tells the story through. Or perhaps I should say that his nine characters choose him to tell their tales of the lives they lived in the city that they loved and sometimes hated but couldn't imagine living without. It's the story of a city and of the many ways of life that coexisted within it, of the unique 'live for the day' ethos that prevailed there and its strong sense of community.
Once past the introduction, the reader never hears Baum's authorial voice again; each step in the evolution of New Orleans from the cleanup after the devastation of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to the last thoughts about Katrina's legacy decades later is seen through the eyes of one of the people he profiles. We see Wil Rawlins struggle to rescue some of the parentless children growing up in the city's housing projects by introducing them to the wonders of New Orleans's musical traditions -- in particular the high school marching band. Ronald Lewis battles for equal pay for the (African American) men who repair the St. Charles streetcar line; Joyce Montana watches her husband transform the African American Mardi Gras traditions. Meanwhile, 'uptown', accountant Billy Grace faces his own battles, such as the scornful attitude the city's elite has for his efforts to build a business and create wealth of his own.
The result is something that only the strongest of writers and journalists could produce. The deeply personal narratives -- small chapters, each revolving around events, small and large, in the life of one of Baum's characters -- are interwoven to the extent that events in their lives dictate. But Baum never makes the mistake of trying to develop some kind of master narrative to which his characters' lives become subordinated. Instead, they speak for themselves. It reads as if Baum has been living alongside them for the last 30 or 40 years, privy to all their triumphs and tragedies as they happen. Oral history is a tricky format to work within: the risk is that the book starts sounding like nothing more than a straightforward Q&A between subject and author. In this case, Baum has produced something remarkable; a work in which the author steps to the background and lets those profiled tell of their own lives, in their own way, without judgment or comment. We are part of the moment on the high school gridiron when band teacher Rawlins sees his motley crew of surly students playing dented instruments, get carried away by the music. "Every rest was crisp, every beat precise. Some of them had their eyes closed. All of them were lost, utterly lost, in the music."
Similarly, the reader is able to get completely lost in Baum's writing and the power of the story he is telling. Long before Katrina blows into the nine lives he profiles, you find it impossible to put this book down. And when the hurricane arrives, it's as if it is happening to people you know and love. Even then, Baum avoids the tried and true images and creates new ones that are able to jolt the reader back into seeing the horror with fresh eyes. Writing about coroner Frank Minyard's decision to ride out the storm, Baum tells of the doctor looking out a window to see his "big black bull and donkey (walk) calmly up the road together through the driving rain. He realized that they were evacuating, as he should have done. Now the roads were impassable." When the storm ends, Minyard heads for the coroner's office. Hitting the flooded area, he carefully saves his ostrich-skin cowboy boots -- then swims his way to work.
It's impossible to do justice to this book in a review. Equally, the lives of those who Baum writes about -- and in particular Rawlins and his crusade to save the children that no one else cares about -- deserve the widest possible readership. This may be the best book purchase that you make all year.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2009
This is the most powerful and moving book that I have read in a good long while -- so much so that certain passages brought tears to my eyes. I looked forward to reading it every evening and regretted that it had to end. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, and I already know that it is a book I will look at time and time again. This is journalism of the highest order, and it reminds us that the true drama is found not in Hollywood scripts, but rather in the lives of real people. I have recommended this book to all my friends and am pleased to be able to do so here. Thanks, Mr. Baum, for this wonderful piece of work.
29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2009
This is a good book, and I found it an easy and quick read. But it is also very lean, even meager. One of the reviewers noted that you don't hear Baum's voice again after the introduction; this is true. In place of an author's voice you get a very stripped narrative of 8 lives, about thirty pages per person spread out over forty years. Given those restraints, Baum does an admirable job, but there's not all that much magic. You get the sense that the real spirit of New Orleans had to be shunted aside to get the tale told. There's one glorious exception, which is the "life" of Anthony Wells, told by himself (he is the only one who was allowed to speak for himself this way). He is all zest and glory, and it makes you realize how much the experience of New Orleans can only be rendered in the first person. The Wells portions, all in italics, are worth reading straight through all on their own. He is like a New Orleanian Neal Cassady.
One way of putting this is that Baum put together in schematic form a kind of Canterbury Tales for New Orleans, but you really can't manage that kind of thing without more first-person narrative. It's the flavor of perspective that really drives the whole.
One more thing. Since Baum was writing nonfiction about living people he would presumably like to remain friends with, there is little that is incisive here. At times you wish you could tell him you're shutting the tape recorder off to get his real opinion on his subjects. I suppose this is why authors turn to fiction - they can put down their real thoughts about people, as long as they change the names. Baum does not appear to be operating with the same freedom.
The overall result is good narrative with surprisingly little color. The book certainly leaves you with an appetite for more, though. The indications you get of complete government collapse (no morgue for dead bodies, no jail to put looters in, all unexplained) certainly make me want to understand why none of our three layers of government were able to respond to hurricane Katrina. That said, this book is not primarily about Katrina.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
After I finished this wonderful book, I wanted to see what the other reviews were. Just for fun, I read the reviews of those who had unbelievably given it 1 star. "Not enough character development??" Apparently, the author of this review does not understand that the "characters" in this book were real people? "dysfunctional characters?" Has the author of this review ever been to New Orleans??...it is a city like no other because of the strikingly colorful diversity of the characters who live there. I loved this book...got to know every one of the featured residents of the incomparable city. Dan Baum's writing allowed me to smell what they smelled, taste what they tasted, hear their music and feel what they felt...
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2009
"Nine Lives" by Dan Baum is a wonderfully written book. "Nine Lives" tells the story of New Orleans from 1965 to 2007 by nine people's biographical accounts. Each of these people's accounts are small interwoven stories by each of the nine. Dan Baum's research and writing shows each person's personality and voice in marvelous detail.
The book starts with Ronald's account in 1965 when he was 14 telling a bit about his life and what it was like for him in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy. It ends with Ronald's account of the first Mardi Gras parade after Hurricane Katrina. Between those two are stories from a politician, a leader of one the famous Mardi Gras Krewes, a schoolteacher from the Lower Ninth Ward and his wife, a New Orleans police officer, a bar-owning transvestite, the wife of the most famous New Orleans's Indians and an ex-con from the Angola State Penitentiary. These nine people are from different backgrounds and sexes and all from New Orleans.
Some of these accounts are inspiring. Some, especially the ones during and after Hurricane Katrina are unbelievable. Some are downright tragic. All are real accounts by real people telling real stories in their own voices. This is an awesome read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2009
I've been looking forward to Nine Lives since I happened to meet Dan Baum on a great trip I took to New Orleans a couple of years ago. He said he was working on a book about NOLA residents after Katrina.
But it is so much more! The book is a cultural history, starting in 1965 and relating different aspects of the city through people of all different backgrounds and social strata. Baum manages to work in so many rich details and observations on what makes the city unique--language, the nuances of the Mardi Gras and Indian traditions, little asides about the food.
As a result, you don't get to Katrina and its aftermath until well into the book--before that, you see how the city slid into a depression when the ports scaled back jobs, and when crack flooded the streets. It makes the hurricane that much more devastating.
This is a beautifully written book, completely engrossing. If you're from NOLA, have ever visited there, or are even thinking about visiting there, read this book.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
First Line: Ronald Lewis walked past one ruined cottage after another.
Dan Baum moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to write about the city's response to the disaster for The New Yorker. What he discovered was that Katrina wasn't the most interesting thing about the city. The question that he felt compelled to answer was this: Why are New Orleanians so devoted to a place that was, even before the hurricane, the most corrupt, impoverished, and violent corner of America?
His answer is Nine Lives, a truly fascinating book that is not only informative, but is also an emotionally and artistically satisfying gourmet meal for readers.
Baum tells us about the lives of nine New Orleanians whose lives are bracketed by two hurricanes: Betsy, which transformed the city in the 1960s, and Katrina. These people cross the lines of age, race, class and gender. They are Mardi Gras Kings, jazz-playing coroners, ex-cons, transsexual barkeeps, women with dreams of white picket fences, and more. As each one spoke to me, I found myself hearing that person's voice. I was transported to the Lower Ninth, to a mansion on St. Charles, to a makeshift mortuary.
"'I'm a lawyer,' Billy said. 'Neither my firm nor the companies I own possess the kinds of resources the city needs.' He sat forward, rubbing his palms together. 'But this is my idea. The collective wealth around this table must be in the billions. Why doesn't each of us, personally, pledge a million dollars cash to the recovery. We can go out of this room and announce that we have sixty million dollars cash on hand: the business community's stake in recovery. Today.' He leaned on his forearms and looked around the room expectantly.
No one spoke...."
Each of these nine people transcended print and became very real to me, and made New Orleans real to me in a way it had never been before. I cared about these people, I laughed and cried and became angry with these people. I was involved. There's not much more you can say about a reading experience.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Cats are said to have nine lives because they're popularly purported to be more tenacious of life than most animals. Dan Baum titled his excellent book "Nine Lives" both because it details the pre- and post-Katrina true stories of nine very disparate New Orleanians, and as a tribute to a city that clings to life with feline tenacity despite powerful forces continually arrayed against its survival. In the face of impending if not inevitable disasters repeatedly flung at the city by nature or man, the people of New Orleans refuse to let their city die. This is a very good thing, as New Orleans is the only major American city where the philosophy of "laissez faire" refers not merely to economic liberalism, but to a way of life riveted to joys other than those that can be measured most readily in minutes and money.
Baum writes well and clearly, in a succinct and fairly journalistic style. The nine people he chooses to follow before and after Katrina are interesting, and in recounting their stories they reveal as much about the kaleidoscopic city they love as they do their tragedies and triumphs in it. Baum's storytelling technique can get a bit choppy as he intersperses the nine stories together over 40 years, switching from one to another. After the first few chapters I chose to read the book by character, rather than in order of pagination.
Baum's book Nine Lives is enlightening, entertaining, and moving. It's a stirring epistle to and from a great American city and its people. I recommend it.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2009
I had to stop numerous times to "collect" myself and collect my thoughts as this book alternately tickled me, intrigued me, educated me and moved me to vast homesickness for my childhood and my original home of southern Louisiana. These days I live in Colorado, a state I've come to love but one which could never displace Louisiana in my heart.
I've ordered additional copies to send to family who are all still living in bayou-land. Highly recommended!!